Hillary Clinton Says She Would Phase Out Fossil Fuel Drilling On Public Lands — Just Not Yet

CREDIT: CSPAN screenshot

At a town hall event in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton became the latest presidential candidate to wrestle with what should be done about fossil fuel extraction on public lands.

Elaine Colligan, a Action Fellow, asked Clinton “will you commit to banning fossil fuel extraction on public lands in this country … yes or no will you ban this?”

Clinton struck a moderate tone — not committing to an immediate halt to fossil fuel extraction on public lands, but voicing support for phasing it out over time.

“The answer is not until we got the alternatives in place, and that may not be a satisfactory answer to you but I think I would have to take the responsible answer,” she said. “I am 100 percent in favor of accelerating the development of solar, wind, advanced biofuels, energy efficiency, everything we can do. And I would hope that we could get to the point that you made which is looking at the public lands and cutting back over time, phasing out the extraction of fossil fuels.”

One word climate hawks were listening for there was “deployment.” Most people support accelerating the development of renewable fuels. The key to the climate crisis is the deployment of those low-carbon fuels that already exist, are already cheap, and can already help shift the world away from climate disaster. The reason she could not commit to a ban, Clinton said, is that fossil fuels are still required to provide electricity and fuel transportation.

“We still have to run the economy, we still have to turn on the lights, we still have to make sure that businesses operate,” she continued. “So I want to do as much as I can as quickly as I can to make this energy transition. But I could not responsibly say to you that I could automatically stop the source of fossil fuels right away without having a substitute in order to keep the economy going, to keep people employed, to keep the lights on.”

The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States comes from coal produced from public lands.

One option for the interim, she said, was to “get more money to fight climate change from those who are doing the extracting” — which could mean increasing coal royalties, pricing carbon, or other monetary options.

When asked for further comment on how Clinton would phase out fossil fuel extraction on public lands, a spokesperson for Clinton’s campaign told ThinkProgress the campaign would let her comments in New Hampshire stand alone.

Clinton’s comments were similar to those from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who earlier this year stated that it is possible for her department, which manages public lands, to allow fracking and other energy extraction while supporting administration efforts to combat climate change.

“How many of you burned no fossil fuels today?” she asked an audience in April at the Center for American Progress. “Nobody of course…the reality is we are an economy that is dependent on fossil fuels, and the federal state is an important source of resources for us.”

Later during the town hall, Giselle Hart, an activist and student at the University of New Hampshire, asked Clinton if her position on climate change and fossil fuels was influenced by the campaign contributions she received from fossil fuel interests. According to the Huffington Post, nearly all of the lobbyists bundling money for Clinton’s campaign worked for the fossil fuel industry at one time or another.

Clinton said no, and returned to the original question. “I know what the right answer in terms of getting votes would have been,” she said, referring to taking a more hard-line stance on fossil fuel development on public lands.

About 10 other activists stood up and began chanting “act on climate” before being escorted to the corner of the hall to hold up a banner reading “ban extraction on public land.” The action was emblematic of the freewheeling nature of primary campaign town halls, and earned plenty of coverage.

“I totally respect the passion and the urgency,” Clinton said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

A few days ago, a University of New Hampshire student asked former Maryland Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley if he would allow fossil fuel extraction on public lands. O’Malley was more supportive.

“No, I would not be inclined to allow fossil fuel extraction on public lands,” O’Malley responded, according to a campaign transcript. “I am very much opposed to drilling off the Atlantic Coast and disagreed with the President very strongly on that. I was opposed to the Keystone Pipeline and I remain opposed to it.”

A spokesperson for Bernie Sanders’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment. He has not spoken up about fossil fuel extraction on public lands, apart from calling for a drilling moratorium offshore following the BP spill. Sanders does not accept money from corporations, has introduced several comprehensive climate bills, as well as legislation to cut subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. In 2007, he and then-Senator Clinton co-wrote the Green Jobs Act, which passed into law and funded research and job training for clean energy and energy efficiency.

Not everyone was happy about Clinton’s response to the public lands question. Meteorologist and Slate writer Eric Holthaus called it a a “frustrating response,” and said Clinton is “NOT a climate hawk.”

“It’s heartening to see Hillary Clinton affirm the importance of phasing out fossil fuel extraction — this is a clear sign that politicians are taking notice of the growing movement demanding action on climate change,” Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for, told ThinkProgress. “Still, her words today suggest that Secretary Clinton is still stuck in the past, when you had to choose between the economy and the environment. That’s just not true anymore.”

“If Hillary Clinton’s serious about tackling climate change, she needs to be bold, show us a plan, and stop looking at this as a trade-off,” he continued.

Later, Clinton described climate change as an “existential threat” and suggested that the Republican candidates who say they’re not scientists listen to scientists, as she has in the past. She lamented some states’ “really poorly thought-out plans” to prevent alternative energy from getting to the grid, and applauded President Obama’s strategy to address climate change via executive authority.

“Hopefully we can get to the point where we develop something like a consensus in this country,” she continued. “And here’s what really upsets me, is the people who are against doing something on climate change have no alternative. It’s just more of the same. And it’s just ‘keep doing it, keep doing what we’re doing now.’ That is a losing policy.”

Republican presidential candidates have taken the opposite tack on public lands, with Sen. Ted Cruz pushing for the government to auction off public lands last year in the senate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told voters in Nevada that while states should take back public lands from the “bully” federal government, “private ownership would be even better.”

“We are seeing two entirely different conversations about public lands in the two primaries,” Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress. “On one side, candidates are talking about how they would privatize or auction off national forests and public lands to benefit oil companies and mining companies. On the other side, candidates are for the first time talking about the need to reform fossil fuels management on public lands, deliver a fairer return to taxpayers from development, and transition to cleaner energy supplies.”